Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Window on Your Characters

We all know how characters are revealed: by what they do, by what they say, and by what others say about them. Not a bad place to start, but for the writer it’s not enough.

Compelling characters also have self-regard. “Their emotions matter to them,” Donald Maass explains in Writing the Breakout Novel. “They do not dismiss what they experience. They embrace life. They wonder about their responses to events and what such responses mean. They take themselves seriously- and by the way, a sense of humor about oneself is the flip side of the same coin.”

Steve Almond one-ups Maass, warning writers not to settle for self-regard over self-examination. Navel-gazing isn’t enough, he says. Characters must look into the dark regions of their heart, those places they want to repress. Look no farther than Victorian fiction to see what kind of mileage writers get from characters who stifle their dark impulses. For that matter, look no farther than the modern tendency toward flagrant self-regard. Whatever reprehensible thing you might think, feel or be, you have only to out it and let everyone else figure out how to deal with it. (If you don’t recognize this attitude, you’re not paying enough attention to social media and reality TV).

Whether repressed or prideful, a character’s capacity for self-examination can be considered through the handy panes of the Johari Window, developed in 1955 as a tool for psychological assessment and more recently co-opted by business for team-building. After my characters have shown themselves strong enough to withstand my attempts to pigeonhole them, I break out the windows to help me figure out what they know about themselves and what others know about them. “Others,” by the way, doesn’t mean my readers or me. In the narrative universe, we’re demi-gods – able to see more than the players in the story, but never all-knowing.

The top left-hand pane of the window is the arena, or open area. Here reside those aspects of character that are visible to everyone. To its right is pane 2, the blind spot (sometimes called a bubble): those things others understand about the character while the poor schlep himself has no idea. Voice often resides here. As in real life, character aren’t usually conscious of how they sound.

Even the most introspective characters will be clueless about other aspects of themselves. When Rivka Galchen was working on her novel, she read a lot of real-life confessions, and what she saw time and again was how no matter how much people set out to confess, there were always some things to which they were blind, like Rousseau who confessed to nearly everything a man could, save admitting he’d fathered and abandoned five children. “That reading helped me understand how interesting it is to have someone be wrong about himself,” Galchen says.

Lack of awareness should never descend into pathos, but buffoonery works. “I think there’s a level of blind self-love in buffoonish characters and a level of delusion and a certain amount of well-meaningness that I find incredibly touching,” says author Chris Abani.

Pane 3 is where you put things characters know about themselves that others don’t see. This usually involves some sort of cover-up, either subconscious or intentional, which is why this pane is sometimes called the façade .“We are all telling the same two stories,” Almond says, “the one about who we want to believe we are, and the one about who we know ourselves to be. Nearly all the humiliating events in our lives (and, for that matter, in good prose) can be said to arise from the collision of these two stories.” When characters engage in intentional cover-ups, they’re taking themselves seriously enough to recognize the gap between these two stories and to try to conceal it; this subversion is in fact one of the first acts of “growing up.” In pane 3, we’re not playing around. It’s not bumper cars; it’s more like a nuclear reactor.

Pane 4 contains the unknown, those things characters don’t know about themselves, things no one else in the story knows about them either. But you – and your reader – may see them, or at least grope in that direction. There’s lots to mine in Pane 4. Deep shame and its counterpart mercy often lurk there. And while desire can fill any pane, it’s most interesting in this one. Ditto for grudges.  It’s because of pane 4 that we want to hang with our characters even after the story is over. Jose Manuel Prieto describes one of his characters in Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire “inexhaustible to me in his enigma.”

Once the unknown becomes known, it exits this pane for either panes 3, 2, or 1, depending on the character’s capacity and courage for self-examination. In this way, as Almond puts it, our characters become “unburdened of the glorious secret of who they really are.”